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2023 Falcons rookie review: Clark Phillips offers an intriguing glimpse of the future

The talented rookie cornerback took on a starting role late in the year and suggested he could keep it in 2024.

NFL: DEC 24 Colts at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons made significant investments at cornerback in 2023, adding Jeff Okudah via trade, signing veteran Mike Hughes, and drafting Clark Phillips in the fourth round. While Okudah justifiably was the headline acquisition there, Phillips was immediately intriguing after a strong college career and given his particular brand of playmaking, instinctual football.

It didn’t translate to an immediate role, but by season’s end, Phillips was being thrown into the fire as a starter. There were ups and downs along the way, but we saw plenty of glimpses of the promise that could make Phillips a long-term starter in this league, and now he’ll have a head coach in Raheem Morris who ought to be committed to getting the most he can out of the young cornerback.

Here’s a look at the season that was for Phillips, as well as his outlook for 2024.

2023 statistics

11 games played with 5 starts

27 combined tackles, 3 missed tackles (10% missed rate)

1 tackle for a loss, 1 pressure

18/36 passes (50%) against for 229 yards and 2 touchdowns

6 special teams tackles

6 penalties

59.0 Pro Football Focus grade

2023 role

After suffering an injury during joint practice with the Dolphins in early August, the promising Phillips was largely mothballed in the early going despite being available. He played special teams when he was active, and he was inactive quite frequently. But the Falcons insisted they were high on him, and we got our evidence of that and our evidence that their faith was warranted as the season rolled along.

Phillips started entering the lineup against Arizona, and after briefly going back to being inactive against the Saints the first time out, Phillips essentially became a full-time starter after that point. We saw a mix of the flashes of shutdown play Phillips is clearly capable of and the aggressive, physical nature of his game against the occasional ugly lapse in coverage or costly penalty, with Phillips picking up six over about a half a season of work. When he was on, the fact that he stuck to his assignment like glue and was frequently nettlesome to them as they attempted to catch the ball was fun to watch. When he was struggling a bit, as many rookie cornerbacks do, it wasn’t pretty; we also never got to see Phillips pulling off the ballhawking work he did in college at Utah when he had 11 interceptions and 19 pass deflections over his final two seasons.

The Falcons weren’t doing much of anything well at the end of the year, but the play of Phillips was until very late in the year a mostly pleasant thing to behold, and the fact that he effectively supplanted Jeff Okudah down the stretch is a good sign for Phillips.

2024 outlook

The change from Ryan Nielsen to Raheem Morris will shake things up a bit, but it’s not difficult to imagine Phillips having a major role on this defense. His aggressive style and the obvious promise in coverage bode well, and Morris loves working with young players with potential. Keeping Jerry Gray around as veteran as a veteran defensive backs coach who is also familiar with Phillips bodes well for the young corner, too.

With Jeff Okudah far from a lock to come back and things generally unsettled in the cornerback group regardless, Phillips could head into the year in a strong position, as he should. Nothing we saw from Phillips in 2023 made his long-term outlook seem grim or really anything less than strong, and we haven’t really seen some of the playmaking flair he showed in college to this point. With another full offseason, an opportunity to grab a starting job and keep it, and a full season to work with a brand new coaching staff and potentially a stronger defense augmented with draft picks and free agent dollars, Phillips is in a good spot and has an opportunity to seize a role for the long haul. Barring a huge addition at cornerback this spring, you should expect Phillips to start, and I’d personally expect him to thrive.